Underwater Photographer and Mermaid
April 10, 2003
Editor's Note: A regular contributor to WetDawg, Dana Africa guides underwater dive adventures in Papua New Guinea, Thailand,
and the Galapagos Islands for Aquatic Encounters. A resident of Eugene, Oregon, Dana is also a volunteer diver at Newport's Oregon
Coast Aquarium when she is not photographing invertebrates.
I started diving in 1973 while living on a schooner in Southern California. We frequently took the boat out to the Catalina Islands
and diving seemed
like the next natural thing to do out there. A diver friend was invited out
to wine, dine, and sail into the sunset, but ended up spending a
week teaching us how to dive instead. I clearly remember my first dive
instructions: "Hold my hand and DON'T hold your breath."
The appeal? It's close and wet. All joking aside and without sounding too
macho, when you finish a day's dive off Oregon you feel like you've been
right up there at the very apex of life. All senses are challenged, the body
is worked, the mind is at ease. The hot shower feels exquisite like nothing
experienced before. I'm also an invertebrate buff. There are more inverts
out there than you can imagine.
My first camera was a Nikonos III with a single strobe. Basically, a
waterproof Brownie. Then I got a Nikonos V with dual 105 strobes. My
favorite setups are a 35mm lens with extension tubes, the Nikon Close-up Kit,
and occasionally a 28mm lens. I have replaced the wire framers with a
product called Spotshot which utilizes two penlights in a frame that show you
where the center of your slide is. The Spotshot doesn't frighten fish or
disturb the substrate you're trying to shoot. THEN came the housed camera.
Currently I have a Sea&Sea NX80 that holds a Nikon N80. It mounts two
strobes, one big, one little, that can be both on or only one slaved
to the other. My favorite lens is a 60mm by far, though I force myself to
practice distance with a 20mm wide angle.
When shooting in Oregon, I take the Nikonos V because I can set it for macro
(and pray the grey whale doesn't come nuzzle me), hold it easily in one hand,
and break it down into a bucket on deck. When traveling, I haul the housed
unit around but ALWAYS have the Nikonos V tucked in my back pack in case I
have a terminal flood....
GO SLOW. Stop. Wait. Look all around you. Wait some more. Things happen
when you are not swimming. Animals come back out after you have been still
for at least five or six minutes. Look at the background that your subject
I feel strongly that a good photographer is also a moral one. Don't
stage set your shot. If you move an animal to look better in the picture,
you are likely killing the animal. If you need to dig a hole with your fist
or fins to get the right angle, you are probably killing a lot of animals. Patience, Grasshopper, there's always another day and
Before you start toting a camera around underwater, be totally comfortable
with your bouyancy and your dive gear. I dived twenty years before I held a
camera - most people want to start sooner. Just note that having a camera
with you changes how you perceive everything you see. You tend to focus your
world through the camera's eye and forget that you still have those pesky
legs attached to your body.
Don't get frustrated. Okay, get frustrated but don't give up.
Read a book on basic underwater photograpy. Choose one subject or lens or
fstop or distance at a time. For example, get good at shooting 24" fish at a
distance of 3 feet at f11, then try a 3:1 extension tube and see who all you
can make fit in it. Familiarize yourself with your camera, so you don't have
to search for knobs underwater.
Use LOTS of film. If you can't afford to buy, shoot, develop, and throw
away tons of slides/negatives at first, take up crewel.
The type of camera you choose to start off with should reflect what you can
afford to lose. Underwater cameras by nature are prone to disaster. I have
managed to keep my cameras water-free (...hear that? I'm knocking on this
oak desk) by adopting the same care protocol used to keep a 17-year-old
cocker spaniel with a severe seizure disorder alive.
Correct camera care
does not work with romance, honeymoons, beer, or spur-of-the-moment anything. It requires consistent, anal-retentive attention to a small set of o-rings
that determine whether or not you will love or hate your next dive. There is
no escaping the rigors of o-ring care - it will not wait until tomorrow. Fortunately, you will not be
alone - there are large groups of people on many
dive boats that have their entire social, emotional, and psychological lives
based on the common camera table - much like the quilting bees of old.